To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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Discuss narrative point of view and literary elements in To The Lighthouse.

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Virginia Woolf is known for her use of shifting narrative perspectives and this quality is certainly true of this novel. Presenting the narrative through the perspectives of various characters using stream of conscious narration, Woolf creates a subjective story type, where mental life replaces plot as the central narrative concern. 

The novel's structure is dominated by the shifting and free flowing nature of Woolf's stream of consciousness narration. In the first section of the novel, the fluid movement from one narrator to the next is the most distinct aspect of the novel's structure. The separation of the book into distinct parts demonstrates a shift in time. 

This use of stream of consciousness narration becomes the primary tool of characterization in the novel. We learn most about a character as we experience the manner of his or her thinking. 

Instead of being an attempt to capture the complexities of one individual mind, her novel is an attempt to capture the minds of a large group of people as they interact over time.

One result of this narrative strategy is to render imagery as a function of character. What characters see and mentally depict in the narrative relates, directly or indirectly, to who they are. 

Setting has a practical and a symbolic function in the novel.

...the world that surrounds the characters has a symbolic status with different and specific meanings for each character.

Some characters meet out in the open, taking walks and spending time together. Lilly does her painting out doors and attempts to find a way to express the truth of the world she finds there. Mrs. Ramsay, in contrast, remains isolated indoors, a facet of great importance to her character. 

Irony occurs in the novel as a result of the conversations on philosophy regarding perspective as well as conversations about Lilly's views and practice of painting. Subjectivity is at the heart of these discussions. They suggest a lack of fixed, objective reality in the world and posit instead a shifting, personal, internalized set of realities.

Lily's painting style shows a different kind of reality in which objects and perception can be different for every person.

In a novel concerned with presenting subjective visions of reality, discussions of abstract art and abstract thought take on a meta-fictional quality, offering comment on the text and the characters that are giving voice to these discussions. 

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